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Seeking Shadows by E A Cartwright

 

Overview: Humans on Kana live unaware of the Shadows holding their world together—and for good reason.
As a high reaper, it will become part of Branwen’s responsibilities to protect the Balance, should she be crowned. However, consistently demeaned by Taren, her bitter competition to the Nether throne, she struggles to feel confident in herself and the power she keeps hidden—until a reaper returns from Kana injured, speaking her rival’s name.
When Taren joins forces with a pompous businessman hungry for invincibility, Kana quickly transforms into a deathtrap as humans unite under a common goal: no more reapers, no more death.
While starving reapers grow weaker and humans feel the consequences of a life with no end, Branwen sets out on a mission, navigating a world of technology to bring Taren to justice and restore the natural order. But an unlikely friend leads her to a discovery that there is more to the humans’ unified behaviour than meets the eye, and saving the worlds may no longer be so straightforward.
The problem is locked inside an old clocktower, and the solution hangs around Branwen's neck.

 

Seeking Shadows by E A Cartwright Book Chapter One

 

Branwen

The screech made me stop, and the crash made me turn. Both sounds echoed off the high-rise buildings and crawled towards the tip of my spine. I lingered where I was, peering through the gaps between people and trees where rising smoke and growing flames both darkened and lit the late-afternoon atmosphere.

Another few steps cleared my view of the road. I remained just behind the low wooden rail of the park, gauging the collision; a truck halfway across the intersection, a small car wedged beneath its cabin. My eyes settled on the flattened driver’s seat: there lay my purpose.

Yet I hesitated to approach, observing the reactions of the surrounding humans. Some were crying, shock paralysed others, and a minority were yelling for help. But then my sights settled on a person demonstrating my least favourite in the series of disaster responses: the citizen journalist.

Fifty paces from the crash, the man fiddled with a phone, filming the wreckage and its victims without qualms. I scowled but held my ground: there was always one. I couldn’t risk being caught on camera; damage control was one of the more tedious of my responsibilities.

Regardless, the soul pulsed towards me from within the car, casting a dull ache across my senses, a throbbing in my joints. I glanced back, biting my lip. Going out of body was an option, but that would mean surrendering the soul to nature, all for an upset stomach. Surely, it could wait a few minutes …

I scanned the intersection for other possibilities, noting the Good Samaritans aiding the shaken truck driver from his cabin, and the approaching wail of sirens in the distance. A flurry of movement drew my attention towards the sky. From the clouds, a shadow passed overhead like a vulture seeking out prey of the freshly passed. It descended through the billows of smoke and emerged on the tarmac as a dark-haired girl with pointed features and the sleek wings of a newly grown fledgling. She observed the wreckage, disregarding the bystanders—mistake number one—and now was walking directly into the journalist’s shot.

I groaned and vaulted over the barrier, praying to the Mother I hadn’t been so careless in my youth. Yelling wasn’t an option, lest I risk attracting attention to myself, so I sprinted towards the wreckage, pausing only for a moment to observe the journalist’s screen over his shoulder. As I did, her stark winged form entered the frame. A sound of confusion erupted from the man’s mouth, followed by the click of an artificial shutter.

In his distraction, I passed him by unnoticed, stopping amongst the carnage. The stench was acrid, and I fought back a choke as the burning rubber and smoke seared the back of my throat. I ducked forwards; the cracked rear windows of the car gave a perfect view of the pavement, slowly filling with curious pedestrians and the journalist, now engrossed by the image on his phone. I cursed under my breath. I would deal with him, but first—I turned—the girl.

I found her on all fours, grasping the protruding limp arm of a body, careful to avoid the spreading flames. The black vines of her mark were already receding from him. At least that was one less thing to worry about.

I reached out, grabbing her by the ankle closest to me. Her subsequent squeal made my stomach tighten, and I quickly scanned the crowd only to find their attention still on the wreckage and the one survivor.

“High Branwen, you scared me,” the girl sighed, pulling her arm back, and ducked out from under the truck.

“You need to get out of here,” I said, wasting no time with niceties.

She stopped. “What? Why?”

I nodded my head in the journalist’s direction, who was now scanning the debris with narrowed eyes. Seeing this, the girl froze.

“Did he … see me?” she choked.

“He caught you on camera, which is why you need to leave before someone really sees you.”

She didn’t move, her gaze remaining plastered to the man. “What do I do?”

“Fly through the smoke and get back to the Nether. I’ll deal with this.” I shifted to observe the crowd again and placed my hand on the ground to steady myself, only to touch something wet and warm. I lifted my palm, and the stink of fuel hit me at once. “Better sooner than later,” I finished, eyeing the licks of fire that reached for the puddle at my feet.

The girl nodded once and shot into the sky, following the column of smoke into the clouds. Returning my attention to mistake number two, I crept out from the wreckage and stood before the small gathering the journalist had accumulated. Usually, this would be the end of the matter, but if he had a photograph, it needed to be destroyed.

I removed the coat that concealed my wings and tied it around my waist, then took off and circled to come in low, skimming the tarmac with my fingertips. I kept the phone in my sights.

Ten paces from the crowd, I reached out, closing the distance in the next few seconds. The humans scattered in panic, disorientated by the feathers of my wings. My fist locked around the thin slab of glass and plastic, and I pulled it from the journalist’s unsuspecting grip as I adjusted my trajectory to a sharp ascent. Seconds later, I was stood in the centre of the park, watching from afar.

“What was that!”

“Maybe a bird?”

“A flock must have been startled by the crash!”

“Hey, where’s my phone? Somebody stole my phone!”

I exhaled past the thumping in my chest and turned without remorse, dropping the device into a nearby drain, and waited for the splash before moving on.

Finding the park exit, I pulled my coat back over my shoulders and shadowed a couple through the automatic doors of the adjacent hospital, fire engine sirens shrieking along with my departure.

I drifted down the stuffy hallway in a trance, struggling to pull myself from the edge I’d been forced onto. I wasn’t a fan of hospitals, so this didn’t help. Featureless and sterile. How any human would want to spend their final hours in this place, I would never know.

As I entered the geriatric ward, my senses guided me through the maze of corridors; a heavy magnetic weight that pulled me along by my heart and a little from behind the ears. Doctors and nurses bustled by, unable to notice me through the shadows protecting my presence. I came to a halt before an open doorway where a medical chart on the wall named my target. It looked like today was the turn of lucky old “Karl Rodgers.”

I stepped over the threshold into the disgustingly blank room. The sun streamed through the window, pooling at my boots. Somehow the warmth it added was only felt in body, not in spirit. Just like how the shadows picked out the peeling paint on the walls, and the reflections highlighted the mysterious stains on the tiled floor.

Karl was sleeping, hopefully dreaming of being somewhere else. An intravenous line attached to his wrist pumped a pinkish concoction into his veins. Not that anything would help him now. His aura was dim and grey, and that was all the convincing I needed to do my job.

I twisted my hair into a bun—thick and black—and approached the bed, ignoring the attending nurse sitting in the corner. She was too infatuated by the two-dimensional Adonis in the magazine draped over her lap to notice any visitor, let alone me.

Humans. I rolled my eyes. Lustrous, gluttonous, selfish humans.

Karl shuffled under his covers, verging on consciousness but never quite making it. My gaze flicked over him from head to toe. He was old, and I saw what one would expect to see of the elderly. Fragile skin prone to ruptures. Liver spots across every surface. His hair was wispy and grey and beneath, the thin white line of a scar.

I raised my left hand, and my too-long sleeve fell. My skin was the palest of whites, like all of my kind. So white that as I stepped into a ray of sunlight beaming through a window, my body sparkled as if made from ice and coated in frost. The swirling, black tattoo on my palm was stark against my skin.

At first glance, this is all any mortal would think it was. But if they looked again, they might get the inclination that the spiral was pulsing. Looking closer still, they’d begin to see the hundreds of tiny runes making its mass, continually moving and switching places with one another. Runes no human had ever laid eyes on.

Unprovoked, the fidgeting symbols broke free of their fixed shape and bled outwards like a puddle of ink on parchment, forming trails towards my fingertips. Lightly, I held Karl’s hand in my own, allowing the vines to spill onto his pallid skin.

Alerted by my touch, his eyelids snapped open, pupils frantically darting around the room before they landed on me. His brow creased as he took in my strange appearance, but I greeted his curiosity with a smile lacking in the malice humans often expected from their misguided tales of “the Grim Reaper.” My presence was natural and without threat, and I communicated that meaning into my gaze.

The vines branched outwards to form a dark spiderweb across Karl’s body, and his eyes once again fluttered closed. I followed his lead, allowing vivid images to replace the darkness. We watched together as each loving memory, thrilling experience, and challenging encounter flooded Karl’s mind. They played back to him, counting down the years of his life until they faded and stopped. When I opened my eyes again, a ghost of a smile traced his lips, and the black lines receded to my palm.

I jumped at the shrill ring of the heart rate monitor. Cursing my staggered heartbeat, I withdrew from the room as the nurse sprang to her feet, her magazine falling forgotten to the floor.

I didn’t look back. Not even when a hoard of doctors and nurses rushed past me. This was how it was meant to be.

I walked out of the hospital and breathed in deeply, savouring the fresh air, crisp with an autumnal chill. Even though the act of my work filled me with euphoria, it was short-lived. Like finally getting to bed at the end of a long day, knowing you’re going to do it all again after never enough sleep.

I tugged my trench coat snuggly around me and freed my hair from its captive bun. Thick strands fell over my face as I walked with my eyes glued to the ground. My fingers played with a piece of lint in my pocket as my gaze crossed from the solid concrete of the pavement to the gravelly footpath of the park.

Pausing where I stood, I looked up, back amongst the slowly shedding trees. The commotion of the crash was over, and all that remained were late-afternoon strollers. People-watching on Kana was a bad habit of mine, but it always left me fascinated. Fascinated by humans and how they found joy in life, despite the imminence of their deaths.

It was hard to empathise with those who suffered from mortality. How did life with a definite end feel? An end where someone like me would appear at their bedside and take away everything they held dear.

Remorse twanged deep in my gut. Sometimes I felt guilty, but then jealousy, of all things, would rush forwards when I imagined life in their shoes. Immortality aside, it might be a refreshing change living a life not having to spend the entirety of my existence worrying whether tomorrow would be the day it happened; the day the Balance broke. Scenarios like today showed just how easily that could happen. My looming graduation did nothing to calm my nerves, either.

I pinched the bridge of my nose and groaned, trying to keep the negative thoughts at bay. Sitting on a bench, I watched the children playing on the swings. Their auras were bright and new and in a massive array of colours. From there, I looked at the parents chatting away on the sidelines—theirs were dimmer and faded.

Frustrated, I averted my gaze and stood to approach the grass where a few families were dotted around on picnic blankets, enjoying the last hour of daylight as the evening clouds rolled in. They all ignored me as I stepped through them, shrugging off my coat and tying it around my waist. Even with my wings on show, they were oblivious; the shadows protected me that way. My feathers fluttered refreshingly in the breeze and so I uncurled them, testing the wind and using the opportunity for a decent stretch.

As I neared a mound in the grass, I picked up my pace. Bracing my wings, I jumped with one large stride and spread them, pushing downwards with a single stroke. The powerful move shot me into the air, cutting through the crisp breeze as I flew towards the peaks of the skyscrapers.

_

Jay

“Oh, gross!” I complained as soon as I felt it: the soft squelch of dog poop underfoot.

My eyes narrowed on the culprits down the footpath; an elderly couple with a scruffy white terrier. Great. Thanks, sir and madam.

I stalked to the other side of the path and wiped my shoe clean on a moist patch of grass, sighing as I looked down at it. Those shoes were fresh from the box just yesterday.

Shaking my head, I brought my attention back to my camera screen: a playground, trees, and some children.

“Nothing unusual there,” I said to myself, turning gallery mode off.

I pivoted on the spot to face the length of the footpath, this time avoiding the half-mushed pile of dog excrement. There were a few people around, but I wasn’t looking for folks I could see. No, that would be too easy. Raising the camera, I pressed the shutter once more. As the preview flashed away, something caught my eye.

I switched to the gallery, bouncing up and down on my toes as the loading icon whirred. Selecting the image, I held it closer to my face with trembling hands and squinted at the screen.

My shriek attracted the attention of a few curious passers-by, but I didn’t care. There she was, just as I had thought! A pale, gothic-looking girl was sitting on a bench a little farther down the path. Without my camera, she had been invisible, and that’s how I knew I’d found one. The guys on the forum would be so jealous!

My chest grew light as my heart began to flutter. I looked up at once and searched for the girl in the image. With the illusion broken, I easily identified her in the middle of a clearing. It was odd yet expected that none of the families took any notice of her as she stepped over them.

I kept watching her as she removed her jacket.

No. Freaking. Way. Those couldn’t be …

I quickly raised the camera again, but a piercing ray of sunlight escaped from behind a cloud. I winced and looked away, blindly pressing the shutter through the dark spots. The moment my eyes recovered, I scanned the park again. My heart deflated.

She was gone.
 

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